Migrant Workers

migrant worker

After Brexit: Scotland’s struggle to compete for migrant workers

Since 2004, thousands of EU citizens have come to Scotland every year, mainly taking care of less skilled jobs, despite often having high levels of education. Many remained, raising families and contributing to their local communities.

Contrary to UK-wide targets for reducing migration, political leaders, local authorities and civil society organizations in Scotland agree that the country must continue to attract and retain migrants if it hopes to meet a range of social, economic and demographic goals for the future.

Our recent report found that policy makers need to consider the combination of goals they wish to achieve a new immigration policy. Basically, they also need to take into account the various needs and choices of migrant workers and the attractiveness of the UK as a destination.

Immigration after Brexit

As the Brexit negotiations ended, it seems very likely that the end of free movement comes. This raises concerns about how Scotland and other parts of the UK will recruit sufficient manpower, particularly for low-skilled and underpaid jobs in sectors such as welfare, agriculture, food processing, construction and hospitality.

So far, a significant part of these jobs have been filled by EU workers. Even before Britain left the EU, there were difficulties. European nurses and health workers have left the UK in higher numbers since 2016. In agriculture, difficulties in recruiting workers in the berry sector have resulted in significant losses as produce decays in the fields.

The current immigration management proposals for this type of post-Brexit job are short-term, restricted schemes that require migrants to leave the UK at the end of their stay. This is in stark contrast to the indefinite flexibility provided by free movement which has included the rights to change employers, access to benefits, family reunification rights and relatively easy to regulate opportunities.

Our report examines a number of options available to policymakers when designing programs to manage migration for low-skilled jobs. Based on case studies from other industrialized countries such as Canada, Germany, Spain and Sweden, it shows that there are a variety of possibilities, including different “packages” of rights and restrictions. Future immigration policy will impact not only the types of migrants who are willing to come to, or settle in, Scotland, but perhaps more worryingly the country’s ability to attract migrant workers.


Who will come?

The report shows how the flexibility of free movement has influenced the decisions made by EU migrant workers and their families in recent years. Young unattached migrants and those arriving short-term to earn better wages are unlikely to put off restrictions on length of stay, access to well-being or family rights.

However, the long-term desire to settle often emerges over time, and an overly restrictive system, especially when perceived as unfair or complicated, can encourage passing visas and other forms of irregular immigration.

If long-term stays are desired as a political goal, as in Scotland, social and family rights are paramount. Families with young children and those seeking to settle down are the ones most likely to be discouraged by a more restrictive system. In many rural areas of Scotland, where migrants are overwhelmingly employed in low-income jobs, it is precisely the combination of social and economic rights afforded by free movement that have encouraged and facilitated their longer-term settlement.

What can be done?

Whatever program is adopted after Brexit, the UK as a whole and Scotland will have to compete with other countries for migrant workers. For EU citizens, other countries within the EU where free movement still exists will become more attractive. And if UK entry requirements become as complex as those of other English-speaking countries like the US, Canada or Australia, which offer warmer climates and stronger economies, these can also emerge as competition, especially for young migrants with good English.

If EU citizens become less willing to fill UK jobs, this could be offset by the recruitment of immigrants from further afield. But employers, local communities and service providers would have to make (possibly costly) adjustments to accommodate this change. Looking ahead, policymakers, employers and local authorities will need to balance a range of labor market, social and population goals in developing new immigration policies.

Fundamentally, they also need to consider how different programs can affect migrants’ decisions on mobility and settlement. A move to a more restrictive system is likely to have negative long-term effects on the supply of EU citizens to less skilled jobs.

This is likely to have wider carry-over effects for particular industries and local communities. A recent study examining the potential impact on the agricultural sector in Scotland found that nearly two-thirds of farmers should switch to other agricultural activities or diversify into non-agricultural activities. Meanwhile, the decline in hiring in the social care sector could worsen an already looming crisis in social care as Scotland’s population ages and more and more people are in need of assistance.